handling stress during a performance improvement plan
August 28, 2018 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Last week I was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan. Obviously I'm working day and night to fulfill the specifics of my PIP, but I have depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as a precarious financial situation, and the stress of looming unemployment and possible homelessness is making it hard to cope. How can I manage the stress and make a concrete plan to get myself out of this situation? (snowflakes inside)

My performance the last few years is average-- I'm not a star performer. Which I guess is obvious. But I've always had positive feedback as well as negative feedback in my performance reviews, have always been told I'm a valued member of the team, and, perhaps naively, I didn't see this coming. One of my other coworkers just got fired as well-- on the day before I was placed on the PIP-- and I know that the company has some financial struggles, but overall profitability is good as far as I know.

I've been at this job for about four and a half years, with eight years of experience in the industry total. So I've bet a large chunk of my career on this company, and to think it might not work out, and that I might not even be able to salvage a good recommendation here is... well, I'm not sleeping much.

I'm having nightmares, emotional flashbacks, and nearly daily panic attacks. Every day for a few minutes to hours I feel serious, debilitating almost blackout levels of rage. (I don't *do* anything with this anger, but it's there.) I'm on 20mg of Prozac and it feels like nothing right now. I don't even know if I have time to go to the doctor to get another script because I'm working every second of every day. I've dropped my therapist because I'm cutting expenses right now. I plan to find another one on a sliding scale.

Some concrete steps I've taken so far: I immediately started looking for a new job. I've applied to three jobs so far, and landed an interview for a full-time temp to hire scheduled this week. Also I've taken on a part-time job, which provides minimum wage plus tips, in hopes of tiding myself over should I find myself up a creek without a job and without a plan. Friends are looking at my resume and one is going to submit it to the place she works.

I have about a month and a half to months of expenses saved up, so that is my deadline to find a new job(s).

I guess my question is two-fold:

1) I am terrified. How do I cope with the fear?
2) Is there anything else I can do to provide some security for myself that I'm not already doing?
3) Should I quit and try to negotiate severance? Is that what a savvy corporate warrior type of person would do in this situation?

Both advice and personal experiences would be welcome.

Additional snowflakes: I don't love this career, it was something I kind of fell into, but I was not raised to see work as anything other than a thing you do to get money to live, and so advice along the lines of "look at this as an opportunity to do what you *really* want to do" is baffling to me. I *really* want to feed myself, that's all. At one point I had delusions of grandeur and wanted to go into academia, but I was young and stupid and had no idea how badly my brain was broken yet.

That said, my "other" job is (unpaid) activism, and I've spent the last few years of my free time getting up close and personal with some serious social issues in my city, and was wondering if I could parlay that into some sort of nonprofit/social work job.

I mention this because on some level I am wondering if this all is a sign that I'm just not cut out for this industry, or for corporate life, and I should try to leave it.
posted by coffeeand to Work & Money (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Should I quit and try to negotiate severance? Is that what a savvy corporate warrior type of person would do in this situation?

You mention financial struggles for the company, a coworker being let go, and you are being placed on a performance improvement plan. My takeaway would be the company is looking for ways to reduce cost, so I would think your chances of negotiating severance are slim. (At least in the U.S., I know in Canada it can vary depending on your time with the company.) You quitting helps solve their expenses problem and I frankly don't see their incentive to give you severance.
Just my two cents. Good luck, and I hope you figure this out.
posted by mike_honcho at 9:00 AM on August 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

First of all ... breathe.

Try to break down what you have do to in your job into manageable chunks. Say to yourself "I have to do X in the next 30 minutes". When you've done X, then go onto Y. Looking at the big picture can sometimes be overwhelming. Baby steps.

Make sure you're taking as good care of yourself as you can - eat properly, get enough sleep, take some exercise every day, even if it's just a 20-minute walk.

There's nothing inherently wrong in doing a job 'for the money', as long as it's not sucking the soul out of you. If it gives you the means and time to do what you love, that's fine. And if you can transition into doing what you love for a living, great. But don't do anything hasty.

Whatever you do don't quit and then try to negotiate severance. Once you've quit, you've quit. They owe you nothing.
posted by essexjan at 9:05 AM on August 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, you're doing pretty well. You've already got a part-time job and another interview! That's really good! You're ahead of the game already, so congratulate yourself on that.

I'm of the opinion, partly out of personal experience, that companies don't put employees on PIPs unless they've already decided to get rid of them. So take the energy you're putting into your current job and put it towards the next steps in your career.

Is there someone "on the inside" at your current job that could tip you off about what's going to happen? In my old job, I was really good friends with a co-worker who was also the owner's niece. She gave me a lot of info about what I could expect (e.g., whether I had a shot at keeping my job, whether I'd get severance). That info helped me figure out how to proceed, and while I could have gotten by without it, it was good for my anxiety.

It would also be good if you could hold on to a reference. Do you get along with your supervisor and the PIP is something that their superiors put them up to? Do you have an old supervisor who doesn't know about your current issues? A non-supervisor whose job title sounds more impressive than it really is? (My aforementioned friend was the "Training Manager".) That's another thing that can help keep you calm.

But yeah, just keep applying and interviewing. I feel you on the "I want to feed myself" thing. But you'll make it.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:38 AM on August 28, 2018 [9 favorites]

There is nothing you can do if your employer decides you need to be "downsized"

Improving your performance based on the review likely won't do much for your job security (although poor performance may affect your job security)

You have some runway in that you still have a job, so relax

Remember that organizations typically make changes in the fall, after the summer break

Focusing on improving performance is intrinsically good, though; learn what you need to focus on and take these lessons to your next job

Stress affects performance; learn how to manage stress, or just accept that you're stressed and your current performance is being impacted

Hard to say if activism will or will not pay the bills; use this exploration to determine your transferable skills, and work that interests you, and use this knowledge to see out new work.
posted by JamesBay at 10:42 AM on August 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't quit. Quitting can hurt your unemployment / severance vs if you just wait out your PIP (that yes, you'll fail, but need to pretend that you won't).

Put in the minimum work required while you job search.

As for your fear? I've been on a PIP before and was hired for 1.5x the pay one week after the PIP. Now my company is stress free and great. I'm much happier now. The grass can be greener! Good luck!
posted by bbqturtle at 10:52 AM on August 28, 2018 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I'm getting the impression that, despite the fact that you say you don't love your career, you're taking the feeling of being "not cut out for this industry" and this PIP as a personal failure. That sounds like it's adding an enormous amount of stress to an already stressful situation.

I know it never feels good to feel as though you're falling short of where you thought you were, but I think if you were able to unpack that part a little more for yourself, figure out the root of why it bothers you so much (beyond the obvious reasons) that you've been given a PIP at a job you don't even like that much, it might help put more of this situation into a workable context rather than just being a cyclone of stress feels. Also: rage is usually indicative of a more nuanced emotional undercurrent (disappointment, shame, despair, etc.) so trying to dig a little deeper into that might help with that as well.

Without those bits looming over you as much, hopefully it'll be a little easier to tackle the more concrete logistics of setting up an exit strategy. When I'm stressed, I personally like setting little mini-goals and tasks (apply for one new job a day, ask so-and-so if they'll be a reference, reformat resume, etc.) to make it feel like I'm doing something proactive every day, which helps with the stress.

As others have said, figure out the minimum amount of effort you'd need to expend to fulfill your current job duties so you have more time and energy to devote to the job search. You've got some savings, which is great, and even if they do let you go (hopefully not), unemployment should help you stretch your savings a little more while you track down something new and better.

And hey, not to be that jerkwad who insists on slapping silver linings on shitty rain clouds, but it sounds like you like your unpaid activism work much more than your current job. This upheaval could end up being, in the long run, a fortunate turn of events and help land you in a career that you like way better. It's a lot easier to jump ship when the boat's already rocking.

This super sucks, but you're going to be okay!
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:21 AM on August 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much to everyone replied. Thank you for not telling me it's all my fault, I'm incompetent, I need to grow up, etc.

I feel like I'm on the right track with applying for other jobs but I'm still so panicked it's hard to know if I'm really doing the right things or if I just feel like I am because I'm making myself busy.

What helloimjennsco said here has given me something to chew on.

I think if you were able to unpack that part a little more for yourself, figure out the root of why it bothers you so much (beyond the obvious reasons) that you've been given a PIP at a job you don't even like that much, it might help put more of this situation into a workable context rather than just being a cyclone of stress feels.

My emotional response to this is definitely based on some past experiences.

I hope I can collect unemployment and my current employer will pay out. If I don't do my PIP to the letter, is there a way they could argue they've fired me for cause? (And therefore I won't be able to collect unemployment?) That is a whole other can of worms so I might save that for a future question.

Thank you for the advice and thanks to everyone who shared a personal experience.
posted by coffeeand at 11:37 AM on August 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Generally, "fired for cause" is a much narrower category than it sounds like. "Fired for not being good at the job" often still qualifies you for unemployment in the US. If you look up your state's unemployment information, you may find it comforting.
posted by lazuli at 12:40 PM on August 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in with another vote of support. This does not really sound like it's about you and your performance at all, you owe this company nothing but your minimum, and it sounds like you will end up with unemployment or severance to further cushion your landing and give you breathing space.

Also, can you please stop for a second and note that you're amazing for "working day and night" to meet the requirements of your PIP, aggressively searching for another job, and engaging in activism while also dealing with broken brain issues? I have dealt with broken brain issues, and the level of adulting you're doing is impressive. You're entitled to some moments of blind rage. Do something nice for yourself too, if you can.
posted by missrachael at 12:59 PM on August 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

I am a manager and I’ve had people on a PIP.
First off if I were you I’d try to figure out whether I’m on a PIP sincerely (like, they want me to improve) or a PIP to cover the company ass before they fire me. If the former, you’ve got options. If the latter, you might as well leave now. Since they fired the other guy outright it might be sincere... you’ll have to do some digging.
Presuming they want you to improve, there is lots you can do. Review your notes from the PIP meeting, talk to your manager for more specific details in terms of performance goals, or attitude changes they are looking for. Really understand the heart of the PIP. Meet the goals set out best you can, look for strategic behavioral changes you can do (and keep!) to meet those goals. If your manager is sincere, they did this for your benefit. Think of it as a coaching gift. Good luck!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:42 PM on August 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do note that if you quit, you will likely not be eligible for unemployment, while if you get fired you likely will be eligible, so factor that into your decision-making. More info from Nolo.com
posted by lazuli at 2:22 PM on August 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm an exec in a different industry, but I hope my perspective is useful:

First of all, PIPs don't necessarily mean you're fired. This varies widely. I coach my managers that PIPs are exclusively for folks who aren't meeting expectations, but where we truly believe they are capable of doing so. It's important to figure out if you're on a real PIP (in which case effort to understand and address the problem), or a fake one (in which case you should allocate as much energy toward your job hunt as possible, while not underperforming so badly that they term you early). If I were in your shoes, I'd start by putting good faith effort into understanding their view of my performance.

Secondly, DO NOT QUIT. People who quit don't get severances or unemployment. People who are terminated under generally good conditions might get a severance, and do qualify for unemployment. Firing "for cause" doesn't have a legal definition to my knowledge, but it's nearly always used to mean employees who materially breached their employment agreement; not employees where things didn't quite work out.

Third, aggressively interviewing for a new job is a great idea. Even if you successfully complete the PIP you'll have a better idea of what the market looks like, and whether or not you want to stay with your current firm.

Congratulations on your quick success in getting some interest in new roles. That's a fantastic and positive sign. It sounds like you're going to land on your feet, possibly in better shape than you started.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 3:00 PM on August 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, can you please stop for a second and note that you're amazing for "working day and night" to meet the requirements of your PIP, aggressively searching for another job, and engaging in activism while also dealing with broken brain issues? I have dealt with broken brain issues, and the level of adulting you're doing is impressive.

This, so very much this!

I’ve been where you are, and I also suffer pretty bad chronic depression. That crippling feeling of waking up in the night denched in sweat and hyperventilating because ‘I’m an adult and I can’t take care of myself’ is utterly horrible.

I didn’t make anywhere near as good an effort as dealing with it is you are (working an extra job, under that kind of stress? Staying involved in activism? Amazing). So I don’t have any practical advice except: give yourself a break. You are doing GREAT. You’re the kind of person that will rise above this temporary situation through sheer grit. Well done!!
posted by Salamander at 5:55 PM on August 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Most companies formal enough for PIPs also pay for free professional counseling sessions for any employee that wants it. Definitely take advantage of this—can be highly beneficial. Programs are usually called EAP.
posted by Kalatraz at 8:54 PM on August 28, 2018

It might be worth an initial consult with an employment attorney, just so that you know all the ins and outs of local law regarding employers involuntarily terminating employment. For example, I learned that in my state (MA--not sure where you are from your profile), employers are required to pay you whatever wages are owed since your last paycheck, on the day you are terminated. If they just send you your last paycheck on the regularly scheduled day, you're eligible for triple damages. Your jurisdiction may very well have other protections enshrined in law, which an attorney can probably walk you through. He or she will also help you prepare for the worst by talking you through the process you're likely to experience, which you might find calming for the anxiety you're feeling around the looming uncertainty of the situation.
posted by Mayor West at 6:15 AM on August 29, 2018

If you want to fight for this job, it might be good to schedule some interim meeting with your supervisor to see how you're doing meeting the terms of the PIP. If you're confident that you're meeting them (or making good and timely progress towards them) then a) you get the supervisor on record confirming that and therefore them having more invested in your success and you having more ammo should you need it at the end of the 30 days or b) the supervisor isn't encouraging, in which case you know that the PIP is a fig leaf and you should devote your energies to self care and finding a new job. Hang in there!
posted by carmicha at 3:31 PM on August 29, 2018

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